Jim Groom sounded like a preacher at a religious revival when he spoke to professors and administrators at the City University of New York last month. "For the love of God, open up, CUNY," he said, raising his voice and his arms. "It's time!" But his topic was technology, not theology.
Mr. Groom is an instructional technologist at the University of Mary Washington, and he was the keynote speaker at an event here on how to better run CUNY's online classrooms. The meeting's focus was an idea that is catching on at a handful of colleges and universities around the country: Instead of using a course-management system to distribute materials and run class discussions, why not use free blogging software —the same kind that popular gadflies use for entertainment sites?
The approach can save colleges money, for one thing. And true believers like Mr. Groom argue that by using blogs, professors can open their students' work to the public, not just to those in the class who have a login and password to a campus course-management system. Open-source blog software, supporters say, also gives professors more ability to customize their online classrooms than most commercial course-management software does.
Organizers originally expected around 20 people to show up to the daylong meeting, which included technology demonstrations and discussions. But they ended up having to book an overflow room to accommodate the more than 120 attendees.
Blackboard Inc., whose course-management system is used throughout CUNY's campuses, has become particularly unpopular there this semester after a series of technical problems. In March the Blackboard software was offline for three days, making it impossible for students or professors to access material for many courses.
"When Blackboard is down, it's like the door to the college is nailed shut," said Joseph Ugoretz, director of technology and learning at CUNY's Macaulay Honors College, explaining that some professors use the software to administer quizzes and teach online.
Those problems have caused many here to consider alternatives. At one point during the CUNY meeting, Mr. Ugoretz said the blog software the university is experimenting with, called WordPress, could be a "Blackboard killer."
But despite a slew of jokes about Blackboard throughout the day, many attendees admitted that when the course-management system works, it offers easy-to-use features that students and professors have come to rely on. Even those speakers who encouraged professors to use blogs instead of Blackboard said that universities should probably support both.
Doing Something 'For Real'
To demonstrate how a blog might be used in a course, Zoë Sheehan-Saldaña, an assistant professor of art at CUNY's Baruch College, showed off the blog for her course "Designing With Computer Animation." Students posted their assignments on the blog so that other students —and people outside the class —could see them. Students were encouraged to post comments on one another's work as well.
Although new versions of Blackboard include a bloglike feature, Ms. Sheehan-Saldaña said there are benefits in teaching students to create blogs using systems they might encounter in future jobs.
"It looks like a real Web site," she said, noting that the course blog has a look and feel similar to those of other blogs. "For students to have a sense that they're doing something 'for real' is very powerful."
Mr. Groom, in his talk, described a project he runs at Mary Washington in which professors create blogs for dozens of courses using WordPress. Attendees expressed interest in the approach but wondered how widely it would catch on.
Setting up a course blog would be more work for professors, said Stephen Powers, an assistant professor of education at Bronx Community College. "Blackboard has a fairly short learning curve," he said.
Mr. Powers uses Blackboard for his courses and generally likes it. "I'm not against it," he said. "I just want it to work."
Albert Robinson, instructional-technology coordinator at Bronx Community College, said blog software could eventually replace the need for Blackboard there, but he didn't see that happening anytime soon.
William Bernhardt, an associate professor of English who teaches online courses at the College of Staten Island, said the university system needed to offer something easy to use, like Blackboard, to most professors, who don't have time to devote to technology. CUNY should also help professors who do want to try blog tools for their courses, he said: "I think people who are here today are ones who want to go further."
Some professors asked whether it was possible to run a blog that only students could see, noting that they had concerns about making course activities public.
In an interview, Mr. Groom said some people at Mary Washington had worried at first about opening up their online classrooms. Some feared that students might post crude comments on course blogs.
"A lot of people said it is going to maybe detract from the institution's public profile because people are going to say things, and there's going to be some sort of scandal," he said. "But it has done nothing but reinforce what we're doing as important —and get us press from people like The Chronicle."
Looking at Alternatives
Manfred Kuechler, a sociology professor at CUNY's Hunter College who serves on a technology committee for the university system, said he was optimistic that the technical difficulties with Blackboard had been resolved.
The problems arose this academic year, he said, when the university moved to a centralized Blackboard system for all of its campuses rather than continue to let each campus operate its own. Consequently the software had to serve some 200,000 students, with 6.5 million files.
"Blackboard was supposed to run a stress test last summer and last fall to find out how a system could work of that magnitude," said Mr. Kuechler. "They never delivered on that stress test, and that forced us, in a way, to go to that system and keep our fingers crossed."
He said that CUNY had since changed the way it manages the servers, and that Blackboard officials were now doing more to help out.
Blackboard's growing size, however, is prompting campus technology officials to look at alternatives.
The company recently purchased a rival, Angel Learning, and now sells software to the vast majority of colleges who use course-management systems. The U.S. Department of Justice started an antitrust investigation last month into the impact of the deal on competition.
Mr. Groom argues that the need for course-management systems. or CMS's, may soon diminish, once professors switch to using blogs and other tools.
"I think the model for the CMS is outdated given the new Web, and I think that's one of the problems," he said. "It can serve certain functions well, but it's hard for proprietary CMS's, whatever they are, to keep up with the how the Web is changing."
Blackboard is trying to keep up.
Michael L. Chasen, the company's chief executive, has told The Chronicle that the next version of the software will integrate Web 2.0 tools and still offer plenty of features that blogging packages can't match, like online gradebooks.